What Have We Learned Since Tropical Storm Irene?

When I first heard other climate funders speak about adaptation, it was mostly in the context of the impact of rising sea levels on coastal cities like Boston and New York or droughts impacting the west. We have plenty of rainfall and Vermont is a land-locked state, so I figured we should stick with reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But then,

  • Tropical Storm Irene arrived in the fall of 2011, after a year with record spring flooding
  • Since Irene there have been 5 major federally declared disasters in Vermont caused by severe storms (rain, snow, tornadoes and/or flooding)
  • The ski industry, the maple sugar industry, foresters and farmers, people who make their living outside, all know that the forests and farms are facing weird weather, pests, and diseases that require that they change their practices. 

These events have focused our attention on the very real threats that the changing climate already poses to our economy and communities. Our rural communities are facing events and risks that are totally unfamiliar except in what we had thought were one-in-a-hundred-year cycles.  

We are helping communities address those risks and events as we also continue to support efforts that address the factors that are driving the climate to change.  

A few of the lessons I’ve drawn from this work:

1.   The disaster prevention and response community and the climate change community don’t know each other. They should. The way we respond in a disaster can make communities more vulnerable to the next event. First responders need to know how to do the right thing quickly. 

2.   Resilience requires a shift from planning based on what has happened in the past to planning based on what is increasingly likely to happen in the future. That’s a big shift and communities need help understanding what this means.

3.   Land use in our towns and cities determines the resilience of the rural areas. And visa versa. They are interdependent and can’t be resilient without working together. Resiliency isn’t something that can be achieved within a municipal boundary – it needs a region or watershed. 

For example, upland forests and accessible floodplains protect towns and cities during major rain events by slowing down the force and speed of the water. Conversely, inappropriate land use in more developed areas speeds up the force of the water downstream and sends toxic material onto agricultural fields, jeopardizing the viability of the farms as they either lose acreage to erosion or lose crops because of toxic floodwaters.

4.   Vermont’s poorest housing and lowest income residents are most vulnerable to the path of destruction in major weather events. Mobile homes were disproportionately damaged in Irene. Still today, 12% of the homes in mobile home parks are in flood hazard areas. After a flood low income residents end up with no choice but to rebuild in place. If they have flood insurance, it likely only covers rebuilding; lenders are unwilling to pay for improvements or moving.

5.   Addressing those issues raises class and income disparity issues that require careful listening because they may be unfamiliar to organizations that focus on environmental issues.  

Gaye Symington,

March 2014